Eugenics in California

Eugenics in California is a notable part of eugenics in America. As an early leading force in the field of eugenics, California became the third state in the United States to enact a sterilization law. By 1921, California had accounted for 80% of sterilizations nationwide. This continued until the Civil Rights Movement, when widespread critiques against society's "total institutions" dismantled popular acceptance for the state's forced sterilizations.[2] There were an estimated 20,000 forced sterilizations in California between 1909 and 1979; however, that number may be an underestimation.[3][4]

Eugenics in California
Part of Eugenics in the United States
Napa State Hospital c. 1900.jpg
The Napa State Hospital
TargetDisabled people
People with mental illness
African Americans
Attack type
Forced sterilization
MotiveAbleism, racism

General forms of eugenicsEdit

In California, “[eugenics] was always linked to the use of land: to agriculture and plant hybridization”.[5] Many of the powerful social workers, doctors, psychiatrists, and biologists, sought to hurt many of California's Mexican, Indian, and Asian populations through the exclusionary laws that those scientists proposed. In addition to the conquest to hurt the “undesirables” in the state, the California Eugenics plan also was a way to save the state money so they could eliminate the money the state spends on welfare and other programs that help the less fortunate.[5] Eugenics takes three forms in California:

  1. limiting the number of children for whom a woman on welfare can get state support,
  2. coercing women of color who need a caesarean section, and women dependent on illicit drugs, to surrender reproductive capacities and
  3. forcing contraception use a term of probation.[5] In previous years, California had focused on applying eugenics indirectly to humans as a form of “societal benefit”. Now, the eugenicists of the state only focus their resources to save the state money.[6]

California prisonsEdit

In 1909 a eugenics law was passed in California allowing for state institutions to sterilize those deemed “unfit” or “feeble-minded”.[7] As one of the leading states in forced sterilization victims, California's sterilization procedures primarily took place in state mental hospitals. Dr. Leo Stanley was one of the first people to bring the eugenics movement to California's prisons.

Stanley was San Quentin penitentiary’s chief surgeon and was particularly interested in eliminating those deemed “unfit” for society. His avid eugenic-based surgeries were the first of its kind to be seen in a prison. Taking place between 1913 and 1941, the peak of the eugenics movement, Stanley's surgeries were driven by the idea of purifying criminals. Through testicular surgeries, he believed he could cultivate socially ‘fit’ individuals by replacing a prisoner's testicles with those of a deceased male previously deemed socially ‘fit’. His practices spawned early ideologies of “white manhood," which stemmed from his belief that he could "help a new, ideal man emerge".[8]

Use of human and even animal testicles made Stanley's procedures highly unsuccessful and all around bizarre. His desire to restore social morality, along with his fascination with the endocrine system, fueled his research. Throughout the time of his procedures, criminals were believed to have something anatomically off that drove them to commit crimes. This belief inspired Stanley to explore the endocrine system's role in the criminology of a person. By persuading inmates that his testicular surgeries would produce favorable results in their sex lives he sterilized more than 600 prisoners by the end of his career.[8] Stanley's prison work concluded upon the start of World War II where he served overseas, only to retire as a eugenic pioneer.

Human Betterment FoundationEdit

The Human Betterment Foundation (HBF) was established in Pasadena, California in 1928. Led by E.S. Gosney it researched with an aim “to foster and aid constructive and educational forces for the protection and betterment of the human family in body, mind, character, and citizenship”. In 1929 E.S. Gosney set up the Human Betterment Foundation and gathered twenty-five of the leading scientists, philanthropists, and community leaders to carry out research on the effects of sterilization for thirteen years (Valone). Gosney also used the HBF to distribute the product of his research, “Sterilization for Human Betterment” which attracted attention from the nearby university, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Robert A. Millikan, a leading faculty member and proponent of Caltech, was looking for potential donors to the university and shared many of Gosney's views in his work decided to join the HBF board.

Lois Gosney Castle and the board of trustees eventually liquidated the foundation and turned the proceeds over to Caltech. Thirteen years after publishing the 1929 report entitled "Sterilization for Human Betterment,” the HBF continued to carry out research on the effects of sterilization and undertook widespread distribution of the report to individuals, public libraries, and schools. After the liquidation, files were found in 1968, but since they contained personal medical information, they were legally closed to researchers.[9]

Madrigal v. QuilliganEdit

Dolores Madrigal entered the University of Southern California’s medical center on October 12, 1973, in order to give birth to her second child. During her time in labor, she was given a consent form and coerced by doctors into having a tubal ligation, effectively sterilizing her. Madrigal insisted that “No one at the medical center informed me that a tubal ligation operation was going to be performed on me. No one at the medical center informed me of what a tubal ligation operation consists nor of its permanent effects” (Enoch, 5). Rebecca M. Kluchin found while researching the case that “Physicians preferred to perform cesarean sections and tubal ligations in tandem to minimize risks associated with infection and anesthesia, as well as to reduce medical costs. It appears that at this hospital physicians who performed emergency cesarean sections sometimes used the opportunity to persuade a woman to accept permanent contraception”.[10]

In July 1976 Madrigal sued the University of Southern California medical center, accompanied by Guadalupe Acosta, Estela Benavides, Consuelo Hermosillo, Georgina Hernandez, Maria Hurtado, Maria Figueroa, Rebecca Figueroa, Jovita Rivera, and Helena Orozco. Each of the nine other women who joined the class action lawsuit complained of similar proceedings. Together, these 10 chicanas decided to sue the USC medical center, contending that they had never given their informed consent to have the tubal ligation procedure performed. Karen Benker testified concerning discussions with then head of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Dr. Edward James Quilligan, in which he asserted that “poor minority women in L.A. County were having too many babies; that it was a strain on society; and that it was good that they be sterilized".[11]

Despite Benker's testimony and other corroborating evidence, Judge Jesse Curtis ruled in favor of the defendants, stating that there had been nothing more than “a breakdown in communication between the patients and the doctors” (Stern 1135). He went on to say that it was appropriate for an obstetrician to believe that a tubal ligation could help diminish overpopulation as long as they did not attempt to “overpower the will of his patients”.[11]

Californian eugenicistsEdit

  • David Starr Jordan: Founding president of Stanford University and chairman of the American Eugenics Commission, vice-president of the American Society for Social Hygiene, and vice-president of the Eugenics Education Society of London.[12][13]
  • Charles Goethe: First chairman of the board of trustees for California State University, Sacramento and founder of the Eugenics Society of Northern California.[14]
  • Ulysses Sigel Webb: Attorney General of California for 37 years, and enthusiastic promoter of the Californian forced sterilization laws.[15][16]
  • Frederick Winslow Hatch: Secretary of the State Lunacy Commission in California, and later became the General Superintendent of State Hospitals.[4]
  • Ezra Seymour Gosney: Philanthropist to the first California council of the Boy Scouts of America and donated $12,500 to Polytechnic School. He founded the Human Betterment Foundation and under its name authored numerous publications promoting eugenics including, "Sterilization for Human Betterment: A Summary of Results of 6,000 Operations in California, 1909-1929,".[4]
  • Lewis Terman: Creator of the IQ test, and member of the eugenic group, the Human Betterment Foundation. A middle school in Palo Alto California, Terman Middle School was named after him until it was renamed in 2018.[17]
  • Robert Andrews Millikan: Director of the Norman Bridge Laboratory of Physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, California, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, and member of the Human Betterment Foundation.[4]

State recordsEdit

Records of eugenics practices in California are held at the following agencies and institutions. Some records are still protected for confidentiality reasons.

  • California State Archives, Sacramento
    • Sonoma State Hospital Records
    • Mendocino State Hospital Records
    • Modesto State Hospital Records
    • Stockton State Hospital Records
    • Modesto State Hospital Records
    • California Youth Authority/Whittier State Home Records
    • Department of Mental Hygiene Records (incomplete)
    • Legislative Histories (microfilm)
  • Patton State Hospital
    • Patton State Hospital Records
  • Napa State Hospital
    • Napa (Fairview) State Hospital Records
  • CSU Channel Islands, John Spoor Broome Library
    • Dewitt State Hospital Record
    • Camarillo State Hospital Records


  1. ^ Zhang S. "A Long-Lost Data Trove Uncovers California's Sterilization Program". The Atlantic. Retrieved 3 January 2021.
  2. ^ Stern AM (August 8, 2005). Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (1 ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520244443. Retrieved 4 January 2021.
  3. ^ Stolerman K. "The American Eugenics Movement: A Study of the Dispersal and Application of Racial Ideologies". Aisthesis. University of Minnesota. Retrieved 3 January 2021.
  4. ^ a b c d Kaelber L. "California Eugenics". University of Vermont. Retrieved 4 January 2021.
  5. ^ a b c Simmonds, Janet (2006). "Coercion in California: Eugenics Reconstituted in Welfare Reform, the Contracting of Reproductive". Hastings Women's Law Journal: 269.
  6. ^ Stern AM (July 2005). "Sterilized in the name of public health: race, immigration, and reproductive control in modern California". American Journal of Public Health. 95 (7): 1128–38. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2004.041608. PMC 1449330. PMID 15983269.
  7. ^ Miroslava C (2007). "Intelligence Testing at Whittier School, 1890-1920". Pacific Historical Review. 76 (2): 193–228. doi:10.1525/phr.2007.76.2.193. JSTOR 10.1525/phr.2007.76.2.193.
  8. ^ a b Blue E (2009). "The Strange Career of Leo Stanley: Remaking Manhood and Medicine at San Quentin State Penitentiary, 1913–1951". Pacific Historical Review. 78 (2): 210–241. doi:10.1525/phr.2009.78.2.210. JSTOR 10.1525/phr.2009.78.2.210.
  9. ^ Rader, Karen. "C.C. Little and the Jackson Laboratory Archives:Some Notes on the Intersecting Histories of Eugenics, Mammalian Genetics, and Cancer Research". Mendel Newsletter.
  10. ^ Kluchin RM (2007). "Locating the voices of the sterilized". The Public Historian. 29 (3): 131–44. doi:10.1525/tph.2007.29.3.131. JSTOR 10.1525/tph.2007.29.3.131. PMID 18175455.
  11. ^ a b Stern AM (July 2005). "Sterilized in the name of public health: race, immigration, and reproductive control in modern California". American Journal of Public Health. 95 (7): 1128–38. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2004.041608. PMC 1449330. PMID 15983269.
  12. ^ Johnston T. "Meet President Jordan". Stanford Magazine. Stanford University. Retrieved 4 January 2021.
  13. ^ Jordan DS. "The Days of a Man: Being Memories of a Naturalist, Teacher, and Minor Prophet of Democracy". World Book Company. Retrieved 4 January 2021.
  14. ^ Platt T (2005). "Charles M. Goethe, American Eugenics, and Sacramento State University". Social Justice. 32 (2): 17–33. JSTOR 29768305. Retrieved 4 January 2021.
  15. ^ "Ulysses S. Webb, 19th Attorney General". Office of the Attorney General. State of California Department of Justice. Retrieved 4 January 2021.
  16. ^ Ingram C. "State Issues Apology for Policy of Sterilization". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 4 January 2021.
  17. ^ Kelly K. "Palo Alto: Middle schools to be named after Frank Greene Jr., Ellen Fletcher". The Mercury News. Retrieved 4 January 2021.

Further readingEdit